MARSHALL - Changing the world, one project at a time. That's the mission members of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) have at Southwest Minnesota State University. And this past year, members have made huge impacts on the lives of people around the world.
"It's been an incredible year," SIFE president Tanya Ashley said.
The enterprising organization developed a number of projects this past year, but none as massive as the Faith's Pen Rest Stop venture. The revitalization project at the rest stop featuring 30-vendor cook shops had an enormous impact on the people in Faith's Pen, a small community in the mountains of Jamaica.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Pictured is the SMSU?SIFE member presentation team, consisting of Tessa Weber, left front, Jasmine Ghorbani, Tanya Ashley, Rene Wegner, left back, Anna Christensen and Ben Tiensvold, under the direction of coordinator Laura Johnson.
"They were really, really suffering before we came," said Ashley, who remembers visiting the establishment when she was young. "My mother would take me to the cook shops, where we ate delicious, authentic Jamaican food."
But the rest stop, which was once a popular halfway point between Ocho Rios, the country's tourist center and Kingston, the capital and business center of Jamaica, was not the thriving business that it once was.
"The cook shops struggle to maintain a solid customer base," SIFE member Anna Christensen said. "Families in this small community earn their only source of income cooking and selling Jamaican food but are now stressed to make ends meet."
SIFE members evaluated the situation and came up with a plan, which included renovations as well as training the vendors in marketing, hygiene and hospitality. Then, the ambitious students put the plan in motion.
"We made it clear that we're not a charity," Ashley said. "They are doing the work."
For their overall efforts, the SMSU SIFE presentation team earned the right to compete at nationals May 21-25 in Kansas City, Mo.
"What SIFE does is empower people to empower themselves," Ashley said. "That's what we compete against. The teams that do that the best get awarded for that. You can lead a horse to water, but it's all about teaching the horse to drink the water."
Under the guidance of co-advisers John Gochenouer and Sunshine Sinarath, SMSU had a strong showing at regionals in March.
"At the regional competition, we placed top in the entire Midwest as far as SIFE teams go," said Ben Tiensvold, newly-elected SIFE president for the 2012-13 year. "Our team also received the SIFE All-Star award, meaning that out of all the teams present at the competition, our team had the highest scores and the most hours dedicated to our projects."
Tiensvold, Ashley and Christensen joined presentation teammates Tessa Weber, Jasmine Ghorbani and Rene Wegner Friday for a mock presentation for the SIFE business advisory board and others who attended. Laura Johnson is the SIFE presentation coordinator.
"She wrote the script and directs our practices," Tiensvold said. "We'll have it memorized by nationals."
After a 24-minute presentation of the team's top projects for the year, the SMSU presentation team is required to allow five minutes for questions. About 160 teams will compete at the 2012 National SIFE competition, Tiensvold said. The field then gets narrowed to the top 20 and then the top four.
While SIFE members have reached deep in an effort to win a national title, that goal is secondary. It means more, members said, to just make a difference in people's lives.
"I'm excited for the things we haven't even accomplished yet," SIFE member Justin Pitois said.
Students not only spent a total of 2,774 hours on the Faith's Pen Rest Stop project, they also spent some of their own money for the mission.
"The last two trips, the students had to pay their own way because we were running out of money," Gochenouer said. "So these students not only devoted their time, but they also sacrificed significantly for this project. I'm very humbled by that."
Christensen even sold her car to pay for her trip to Jamaica.
"It was worth it," Christensen said.
Three teams of students traveled to Jamaica, beginning with a handful who went on an exploratory trip in October. Those students took stock of the situation and found that Faith's Pen Rest Stop was in danger of being shut down.
"You should have seen it," Pitois said.
Ashley said that each cook shop and bathroom needed repair and a fresh coat of paint. The water supply was also unreliable.
Garbage was everywhere, they said.
"There were no visible trash cans," Tiensvold said. "The grass and weeds were running wild. The vendors were lacking hygiene and sanitation and the shops were literally falling apart."
And, while Faith's Pen was known to the Jamaican locals, Wegner said, the cook shops were unknown to tourists, which resulted in a lack of business. On average, 4,600 cars go by a day.
Weber pointed out that most vendors had similar food, which made competition fierce.
"Instead of working as a community to increase sales, each vendor worked against each other," she said.
As a result, Ghorbani said, the vendors used a desperate and aggressive approach to gain business.
"As vehicles passed through, they rushed to each car, attempting to make a sale," Ghorbani said. "For the vendor, it made sense to fight for customers. Understandably, this attitude creates a hostile environment."
The second phase of SMSU's mission was to educate the vendors and create an appealing environment for the customers.
"In December, SMSU SIFE returned to Jamaica, equipped with an arsenal of powerful tools to help improve Faith's Pen," Christensen said.
The students were accompanied by Gochenouer, Michael Cheng, SMSU director of culinology, a chemist and a marketing professor.
"Our team discovered that the bathroom facilities were a major draw for people coming off the highway," Ghorbani said. "However, they were being charged to use the facility. We took the vendor's suggestions and painted the bathrooms the official colors of the Jamaican flag - green, black and gold - and explained the benefit of removing the fee."
The water situation was also improved, primarily with the addition of a brand new fuel tank for the diesel water pump.
"This meant that Faith's Pen will no longer have to worry about losing water for days at a time," Weber said.
Changing the habits of vendors was the biggest challenge, students said, but after gaining their trust, the process went smoothly.
"We went to all 30 shops, to teach them about hygiene before, during and after work," Weber said. "We taught correct sanitation throughout the shops, demonstrated healthy cooking techniques and hung up posters inside each cook shop as reminders."
Students donated chalkboards and chalk to vendors so they could write a menu with prices, thus eliminating price gouging. SIFE members also proposed a reward system for keeping their area clean after the SMSU team left. Instead, Ghorbani said, the vendors countered that it was their responsibility to maintain their environment without incentives.
"At that moment, our team realized that we had re-sparked the vendor's faith and everyone had even more hope for the future," she said.
The third phase, in which SIFE members teamed up with SMSU's marketing club, led to a week-long trip to Jamaica in March. It's when organizers convinced vendors to officially rename the shops to Faith's Pen Rest Stop, a universally-understood name. SIFE members also created a website highlighting the rest stop in addition to designing and printing large banners to be used as attractive billboards.
"We designed a brochure about Faith's Pen Rest Stop to provide to area businesses," Christensen said. "After contacting hotels and bus companies, to date, we have brochures in 41 hotels in three cities in Jamaica, which has increased tourism at the rest stop."
Tiensvold also clarified that after returning home, the team learned the Jamaican Tourism Product Development Corporation had revisited Faith's Pen and is no longer planning an intervention.
"There are definite improvements," said SIFE member Eskor Eyo, who traveled to Jamaica in December and March. "They're really responding well to what we're helping them do. It's a great feeling to be able to help. You actually see the impact you're making on people. That's the best part."